In California, a Bid to Radically Overhaul Government

In California, a Bid to Radically Overhaul Government

John H. Cox has a vision for making California’s government more responsive and less beholden to special interests. All it would take, he says, is increasing the number of elected representatives nearly one hundredfold.

An attorney, real-estate executive and sometime political candidate, Mr. Cox hopes to take his idea directly to the voters, employing California’s ballot-measure process and bypassing the legislature he hopes to reform. His proposal, aimed for next November’s ballot, calls for massively expanding the legislature by splitting the state’s political districts into hundreds of smaller, neighborhood-size ones. Instead of 120 legislators, voters would elect nearly 12,000.

Doing so, Mr. Cox says, would restore grass-roots democracy and help prevent what he considers the too-powerful influence of special interests.

“If this passes, this would be the greatest transfer of power since 1776, because what it means is that special-interest money won’t control the state legislature,” Mr. Cox said in an interview. “It will be real people in the neighborhoods.”

A wholesale remaking of government in the most populous U.S. state may seem a pipe dream, but Mr. Cox said he already has spent about $500,000 of his own money and was ready to dole out “whatever it takes” to get the “Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act” in front of voters. If he succeeds and the measure passes, the state constitution would be changed and the plan would take effect, barring any court challenges.

His first hurdle: Qualifying the measure. Last week California’s Secretary of State allowed him to begin gathering signatures. He must get at least 807,615 valid signatures—or 8% of the votes cast for governor at the most recent election—from registered voters by May 19. That alone could cost $2 million to $3 million, said political consultants in the state.

His plan also could be one of several ballot measures competing for voters’ attention next fall. Currently there are 20 referendums and initiatives in the signature-collection process, while one referendum is past that stage and awaiting verification.

Corey Cook, a political-science professor at the University of San Francisco, said such a measure likely would have a hard time passing, as complex political overhaul measures rarely do well at the ballot box.

California, with 38 million residents, has the largest legislative districts in the country. With an average population of 930,000, the Senate districts are larger than the average U.S. congressional district. The average campaign for a Senate seat costs about $1 million. Mr. Cox’s proposal would shrink Senate districts to an average of 10,000 people, and Assembly districts would go from 465,000 people to 5,000.

Mr. Cox’s plan doesn’t require all 12,000 lawmakers elected by the new districts to meet in Sacramento. Instead, the districts would form “working committees” that mirror the size and geography of existing legislative areas, numbering 80 seats in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate.

The committees would caucus and elect a member from their ranks to represent them in the state capital. Final approval of any law, however, would be subject to the vote—most likely by the Internet, according to Mr. Cox—of all the legislators from the neighborhood districts.

Mr. Cox’s measure would also cut costs, he said. Most California lawmakers now earn just over $95,000. His plan would pay each legislator $1,000 annually, plus certain expenses. Those appointed to represent the committees would earn more. Mr. Cox’s plan would also cut spending by the legislature on staff and other costs in half. Such changes would save the state $130 million a year, according to a preliminary state analysis, though the cost of local elections could increase initially.

Mr. Cox, originally from Illinois and a resident of the community of Rancho Santa Fe in the San Diego area, is president of Equity Property Management and heads his own law firm, Cox, Oakes & Associates. He was briefly a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. Cox said he came up with the plan after observing the political process in New Hampshire. The state of 1.32 million residents elects a part-time assembly of 424 members, or one representative for every 3,100 people. There, he said, he witnessed impassioned speeches by neighbors and a more grass-roots approach to politics.

The leaders of both Democratic-controlled houses of the California legislature, State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, declined to comment for this article.

Kathy Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government reform, declined to take a position on the plan, but said “there are certainly going to be some real logistical concerns that people are going to have about how you manage a citizen legislature of several thousand people,” she said.

Mr. Cook, the political-science professor, said the plan could make governing a nightmare. “That is a recipe for nothing ever getting passed ever,” he said. “Even in a city like San Francisco it is often difficult to get citywide consensus when you have smaller districts, and so imagine getting state consensus…when people represent such small constituencies.”

 

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